UM student builds community for international students through Better Together

Shortly after arriving at the University of Mississippi in August 2020, David Henen, an Egyptian student pursuing his Ph.D. in linguistics, found that attending a US university as an international student came with many unexpected challenges.

“No one picked me up from the airport, no one helped me find accommodation, so I struggled a lot. It was a horrible experience,” Henen said. “I felt totally alone and helpless.”

The lack of support and community sent Henen in search of a solution.

In the fall of 2020, Henen started a WhatsApp group chat to connect with other international students at UM. What started as a simple conversation quickly created a community of over 300 students from around the world, inspiring Henen to create Better Together.

Better Together focuses on building a family-like community, bridging the gap between international students and campus life and providing international students with the information they need to feel more comfortable in an environment foreign.

With a new culture comes new rules and new expectations. Through Better Together, students have the opportunity to get answers to questions ranging from “Which bank should I use?” to “Where do I go to get a driver’s license?” The community also helps explain American culture and etiquette.

“What are considered offensive words or discrimination? What is considered racism or taboo? What is considered illegal here? We try to help bridge that gap and build a bridge that we transfer what we have learned from our experience here. Like, when someone smiles at you on the street, that’s friendliness,” Henen said.

Elise Denoulet, an international student from Lille, France, says when she arrived in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, there wasn’t much support for international students.

“It was really sad that there was no community, and I’m probably not the only international (student) who just arrived and doesn’t have any friends,” she said. declared. “I’m probably not the only one who can’t reach the others, just like they can’t reach me.”

For Denoulet, the lack of transport was a major obstacle in the beginning. Getting to the grocery store, the bank or the doctor is a difficult task for international students. Through this community, students can connect and build relationships with other students.

“The idea was just to help each other out if you need a ride to get groceries or a ride to the airport,” Denoulet said.

The group has had a positive impact on the lives of not only international students, but American students as well.

Madison, Mississippi native Peyton Shirley has been a member of Better Together for about a year. Shirley says her interest in meeting people from new cultures is what inspired her to join the community.

“When you communicate with people, different topics come up, and then you can see how other people react to those things or what their opinions are about them,” Shirley said. “I definitely feel like I’ve become a much more complete person since I’ve been in the band because I’ve had so many different perspectives on certain things.”

Better Together has many plans for the organization’s near future, including short trips to nearby towns, recreational sports, such as soccer or frisbee, to socialize students, and monthly lunches in American households.

According to Tamara Karakozova – a Russian teacher and member of Better Together from Tbilisi, Georgia – an important part of the fully immersive American experience as an international is visiting an American home. Better Together gave this opportunity to international students by organizing lunches and occasional stays in American hostels.

Karakozova said visiting an American home is especially necessary for international students to immerse themselves in American culture.

“How are these people on a daily basis?” said Krakozova. “What are they cooking?” Do they gather around the table? Do they pray before meals? It’s the experience everyone is looking for.

According to Ole Miss International Student and Scholar Services data, 866 international students enrolled in fall 2021.

You can find more information about Better Together at The forumas good as WhatsApp group chat. The group meets at the Grove every Thursday at noon for lunch.